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Benefits Balloon Pay for Many County Staff

Finances: 327 earned more than $80,000 in 1995, Times survey shows. Overtime and other perks doubled salaries for some.

April 21, 1996|CARLOS V. LOZANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cashing in on millions of dollars in overtime pay and other financial benefits, 327 Ventura County managers and employees earned more than $80,000 each last year, some of them more than doubling their base salary, a survey by The Times has found.

The largest number of highly paid workers was concentrated in the fire and sheriff's departments--which combined spent $15 million on overtime in 1995--as well as the county counsel, public defender and district attorney's offices.

One county firefighter making a base salary of $41,582 more than doubled his income to $96,689, records show. In the Sheriff's Department, one sergeant wound up with a gross income of $114,906 and another deputy earned $101,717 by piling up huge overtime payments.

In addition to the rank and file, dozens of county managers in these and other departments greatly boosted their incomes with the help of a wide range of special bonuses and financial perks, the survey found.

"If we keep this up, we're going to bankrupt the county," said one official, who asked not to be identified. "This is not Chrysler Corp. or GM, this is all taxpayer-funded."

County officials defended the overtime pay and cash benefits, pointing out that it represents only a small number of the county's roughly 7,000 workers who are at the high end of the pay scale.

Also, it is still cheaper for the county to pay overtime to fire and sheriff's personnel than to take on additional employees, who drive up costs through benefit packages and retirement pay, officials said.

"As foolish as it may seem, it's better for the county to pay overtime than to hire more people," said Auditor-Controller Thomas Mahon, who compiled the county payroll data at The Times' request.

The survey found the following:

* Four county fire officials made more money last year--mostly through overtime--than Fire Chief James Sewell, whose gross income was $101,537.

* In addition to the firefighter who doubled his pay, four sheriff's deputies made more than double their base salaries--which range from $41,582 to $48,725--with overtime.

* Another 61 fire personnel and 31 sheriff's deputies made the equivalent of at least half of their base salaries in overtime.

* And dozens of county managers and employees enjoy a rich package of fringe benefits that can, in some cases, add $20,000 or more a year to their regular incomes.

Officials defended these benefits, which include such items as lump-sum vacation payments, longevity bonuses, car allowance, educational incentive pay, excess insurance compensation and bilingual pay.

The main reason for offering such benefits is to attract and retain highly qualified employees, said Ronald Komers, county personnel director. Also, some bonuses are used as incentives for employees to improve their professional skills, work odd shifts or perform special tasks, he said.

"It's cheaper to give bonuses than to increase salary," Komers said.

*

The Times' survey found that 103 of the 450-employee county Fire Department earned more than $80,000 last year, the largest number of highly paid employees in any department.

Nearly all of these workers received between $10,000 and $50,000 in overtime pay, records show. Sixty-one fire personnel made more than half of their annual base salaries--which range from $41,582 to $68,562--in overtime and other cash benefits.

Battalion Chief Stanley Raap, whose base salary is $68,562, was the highest-paid employee in the department last year. His total gross income: $113,403.

Raap was surprised to learn that he made more money than his boss. He said most of his extra income came from overtime, which included seven days of extra duty during the La Conchita mudslide, a three-day assignment in San Luis Obispo County and the filling of some job vacancies.

"Last year was a little unusual for me," said Raap, who has been with the department since 1962.

Although Raap was the department's highest-paid employee, he did not receive the most overtime. That distinction went to Firefighter Daniel Rodriguez.

Records show that Rodriguez, whose base salary is $41,582, earned a total of $96,669 last year. He could not be reached for comment.

*

Fire Chief Sewell said he was not surprised that some personnel are making $40,000 and $50,000 in overtime pay.

"Overtime opportunities are a fact of life in fire service because of the staffing needs," said Sewell, who as chief does not receive overtime.

The department requires that there be three people on duty at all times at 31 stations scattered around the county, the chief said. If someone is out sick or on vacation, then a replacement must be called in.

"We can't operate a firetruck with less than three people on it," Sewell said. "It's not safe."

Last year, the department, which came under sharp criticism three years ago for excessive overtime, spent $8.5 million on overtime pay out of a nearly $50-million budget.

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